An Island Diary - Isle of Rum, Scotland
I’ve been longing to share this post with you all! Since returning from holiday three weeks ago a barrage of birthdays, weddings and novel edits have kept me from collecting my thoughts on my recent island adventure. I planned to write a post for each island but decided to compile everything into one, long post instead. A hectic summer does not a regular blogger make.
Grab a cup of tea (it’s a long one) and let me tell you a tale of three Scottish islands…
The Scottish Mordor…
Rùm – a diamond-shaped island of mausoleums and mysteries. A place of undiminished wildness and beauty. My heart became still and my soul light as glass after two nights here. And yet there was disquiet too, a surfacing of loss and displacement.
We stayed in most charming Airbnb I’ve had the pleasure to set foot in – a wooden shepherd’s hut facing the sea and distant mainland hills. I could have spent the entire trip holed up reading or looking at wildlife. Each morning began with pancakes watching our mystical neighbour, the heron, glide across the glassy sea. The Cuillins of Rùm are every bit as ominous and impressive as the Skye Cuillins - apparently, when Tolkien stayed on nearby Eigg, his view of the Rùm Cuillins was the inspiration behind Mordor.
On our first full day we forayed into the downy hills, in search of a mausoleum and wild ponies. We walked the eight or so miles to Harris without meeting a soul (or orc). At the end of the rugged track we met a man on a Herculean mission to restore a dilapidated cottage. Until this point our only encounters were with deer, hairy coos and feral goats. The man had lived in the cottage for five months and only in recent weeks with running water. He mixed his own cement by fetching buckets of sand from the beach. Beyond his cottage lay the mausoleum which housed the bodies of three English aristocrats. The man pointed out the remains of the first mausoleum, built into the hillside using white, patterned tiles. It was blown up by George Bullough (the then landlord) when a guest remarked that his future resting place looked like a London public toilet. The current mausoleum is an ominous, Grecian structure, a dour temple facing off against wild winds and the tempestuous Atlantic.
Before leaving Harris Bay we found what we were secretly hoping for – wild ponies, in every shade of the Scottish hillside. Coats the colour of autumn bracken, the gingery gold of a grouse’s wing or melting March snows. One bore a stormy coat, the colour of winter seas, another a dark stripe, black as the sand of Talisker bay, across its spine. They were friendly, gentle creatures. Downy, soft fur and deep, black eyes. After photographing the ponies (or cuddling them, in my case) we trudged the long miles back to Kinloch.
It might have taken several hours to walk here but it was worth it to see the mausoleum at the edge of the world surrounded by wild ponies. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again. We returned at dusk to the warmth of the wood-burning fire and a pot of coffee.
The eccentricities continued the following day when we visited Kinloch Castle, a decaying tribute to luxury, and home of the aforementioned dead aristocrats. The tour guide opened the doors for us (the only visitors that day) and warned that there was no electricity in some parts of the castle. We proceeded, phones in hand and Torchlight app at the ready. The castle is an eccentric collision of wealth and dilapidation. Massive Oriental urns and Japanese screens decorate exquisite oak panelled rooms. An enormous bronze statue of an eagle dominates the reception room. The antique rugs are threadbare, the ceiling of the ballroom mouldy. In Lady Monica’s bathroom the head of a thick-horned Highland bull gazed balefully from the dusty floor. The Victorian shower, a steampunk-esque contraption, still works. I wish I had taken more pictures but sometimes it’s nice to live in the moment. Sadly, the castle is falling into disrepair, but there was something about the shabby opulence that fired my imagination.
Our brief spell on Rùm opened my eyes to a magical island. The wild, majestic landscape filled me with peace and awe. The solitude a tonic to my weary, anxious soul. So, what of those conflicted feelings I mentioned earlier?
After a while it became impossible to ignore an uneasiness that came from the very quietude and emptiness of the island. Around 30 folk live on Rùm but once there were over 400. The solitude, the bareness of Rùm came at the cost of local inhabitants being forcibly evicted from their home during the Clearances, so that the landlord could make room for ‘profitable’ sheep farming. Only one family, of MacLean descent were left. In the following years, when the price of mutton dropped, the sheep experiment was abandoned. But it was too late for the original inhabitants, and the only trace of their presence are in the ruined crofts and Gaelic place names. Knowing that can I really derive comfort from the island’s stillness? Often this is my experience as a Scot walking landscapes I love - the cradle of dark hills feels like a hollow ribcage missing its heart. I derive peace and comfort from nature but sometimes an echoing disquiet. The mass eviction of people went hand in hand with an eviction of language and culture, a ripple effect that haunts present day Scotland. I don’t want to go too deep into the politics here but this blog is a place for my honest thoughts and it feels wrong not to at least acknowledge the conflicted feelings I experience when visiting Scotland’s ‘wild’ places.
Over the sea to Skye
Next on our island trip – a brief stay on Skye, followed by a magical night on Raasay. My partner is from Skye and I always enjoy being guided around the hills and beach he calls home. Rippled, slanting Ben Tianvaig; the dark ridge behind the house, wind-blasted and loch-filled; the bay of seals. Stooping on seaweed and slick pebble I wait for them to emerge, sloe-eyed and wary. My partner told me that the best way to get close to a seal when it’s in water is to walk towards the shore while it’s submerged, otherwise they might swim away in fear. Other memories from this portion of our trip include squinting at The Long Night episode of GOT Season 8, on a small laptop screen, shovelling Pringles into my mouth to combat a rising sense of disappointment, and looking down on Portree Bay from a tall, gloomy window in the village hall. Plus fish and chips x by cake.
The sun goes down behind Dun Cana…
Raasay works a different kind of magic to Rùm and Skye. Where Rùm was still and empty, Raasay is full and vibrant in a heart-warming way. That sounds cheesy but bear with me. We visited friends who live on the island (my partner’s friends, but I’m going to claim them as mine, too) who live a version of the life I hope to lead – running a creative business surrounded by friends, family and the most mystical, inspiring scenery one could hope for. Of course, I’m romanticising. Our visit coincided with beautiful Scottish spring weather and I was on holiday, the stress of daily living dropped on a doormat some hundred miles away in Perthshire. But I couldn’t help picturing myself in a Raasay cottage, penning novels, walking Dun Caan and leaving the island once in a blue moon, because why would I want to go elsewhere? The hotel bar, boisterous but friendly spoke of a ready-made social life and the new distillery, a forward-thinking venture designed and built by locals, signals a new golden era for Raasay.
Escaping to the islands was the break I needed. Everything seemed to go right on this trip - ferry times aligned, it was too early in the year for midges and once again I left the Western Isles without a tick. I’m sure my luck will run out one day.
This summer I’ll be handing my manuscript to a professional Editor for the first time. Amid the self-doubt and stress I’m trying to carry a piece of island calm, and remember my dream of writing to brooding mountains and sparkling seas.